Harding Gamebird Farm is all about the birds
Becky Harding distinctly remembers how brothers Everett and Marvin turned their family farm into a game bird hunting preserve. “He bought a bird dog and he couldn’t find any quail on the farm,” she says of her husband, Everett. “So, he talked me into 60 quail. And then it became a hobby gone wrong.”
Everett nods but feels the need to explain a little more: “Me and Marvin, that was our passion. We had bird dogs and we hunted all the time, even when we were in high school. When the birds disappeared 25 or 30 years ago, I knew a guy who had some birds. I bought some and turned them loose so we had something to hunt.”
He adds that Marvin thought it would be a good idea to start raising game birds themselves. “Not really,” Marvin replies, smiling but shaking his head sadly at the workload added to what is also a row crop and registered Hereford cattle farm.
The discussion turns to the glory years when birds were thick in the prairie country of northwest Missouri. “Back in the day when I was a senior in high school I shot over 200 birds,” Marvin says. “That was in 1970, the heyday of quail hunting. We always had dogs — English pointers.”
What started as a hobby with 60 quails has turned into one of the premier destinations for upland game hunters at the Harding Gamebird Farm in Ridgeway. This year Marvin hatched a little over 80,000 chicks. In previous years the total was 65,000 to 70,000.
Those chicks are divided among pheasants, quails and chukars. The hatching starts in late spring so the birds are ready for hunters starting in August. To bring them to maturity the family will feed 10 tons a week of a special ration similar to chicken feed but higher in protein.
There’s rarely a slow time at this family farm, which is served by Grundy Electric Cooperative. Every family member has a job to do, but all turn out wherever needed on this farm that has been in the Harding family since 1900. Everett’s daughter and grandson take care of the birds. His son helps him with the row crops. Marvin, a director for Grundy Electric, is in charge of the cattle, hatches the birds and bales hay.
It’s all hands on deck when the hunters start arriving in late summer. The Hardings can spot as many as 12 groups of hunters on separate tracts across their property. The season here runs from late August to March, when the family switches their focus to improving the habitat.
When a group books their hunt they are asked how many and what type of birds they want. Early in the morning the birds are spotted in the proper field, where they hold in native grasses that are cut in strips to give the hunters easy access while providing cover for the birds.
They are charged only for the birds: 10 or more pheasants are $18 each; $10 each for 20 or more quails and $13 each for 15 or more chukars. There are no per-person charges or gun fees. And they have the field to themselves for the entire day, so they can hunt at their own pace.
“We lean toward families,” Everett says of their clients. “We like to see a father or mother bring their children and hunt. They are guaranteed to be in birds all of the time. They are not walking around hoping to find some. That’s what makes it nice.”
Adds Marvin: “We’ve got a lot of good guides who can take people who don’t have their own dogs. And we have a lot of people come to train a dog. They don’t have to walk all day to shoot twice.”
Already every chukar has been claimed by hunters on this season’s calendar. Becky says chukars are the most popular birds because they are considered the best to eat.
There’s more than birds to hunt at this game farm though. The worst kept secret among deer hunters is that north Missouri is one of the best places to hunt for trophy deer. That’s especially true at the Harding farm. Deer hunts here are booked years in advance, with many hunters returning year after year. The same holds true for turkey hunting.
“It blends in with our farming operation,” Everett says. “We do it because we have the deer and turkey. We have a great area where they can come and hunt. We have a lot of people who come here from the southern states. They come because of the size of the deer.”
Those who visit the farm just east of Bethany are amazed to see the collection of wildlife mounts on display in the farm’s office. They are the lifetime collection of family friend Lester Scheuneman, an avid bowhunter and race car driver.
Lester shot everything he hunted with a bow. He joked that if he ever sold the collection, he came with it. The Hardings provided him with a place to live until his death in July and show off the mounts in memory of their friend.
One group of visitors was especially amazed at the collection and just about everything they saw at the farm. “We had 80 sixth graders come up from St. Joe,” Becky says. “A lot of them had never been out of the city and seen anything like this. They had their phones out the second they got here taking pictures.”
In the three decades the game farm has been in operation, it has grown mostly through word of mouth. Hunters have traveled here from all over the U.S., including areas better known than Missouri for upland game hunting.
The brothers say their success comes in large part from the connection between hunters and their dogs. They recall the man who called and asked if he could bring his old dog out for one last hunt.
“That man bawled,” Everett says. “He couldn’t have bawled any more if it had been one of his children dying. People with dogs fall in love with their dogs, and they love to go out and hunt.”